The mystery of what really caused the tragic deaths of hundreds of walruses filmed by David Attenborough’s Netflix team is deepening as the filmmakers respond to Susan Crockford’s initial criticism.
As Susan Crockford has pointed out, an attack of polar bears in the autumn of 2017 on a colony of walruses drove hundreds of animals over the cliff in what appears to be the same location (Ryrkapiy) and during the same time of year as the events documented by Attenborough’s team.
In response to Dr Crockford’s criticism Sophie Lanfear, the filmmaker whose team was at the scene to film the walruses falling to their deaths, claims that polar bears were not to blame because they were not approaching them:
‘They were not being driven off the cliffs by polar bears. We know this because we had two team members watching the cliffs from afar, who could see the polar bears and were in radio communications with us to warn us about any approaching,’ she said in a statement, released this week.
But if nearby polar bears are not to blame, what or who else may have caused the walruses to panic and jump off the cliff? David Attenborough and his team have blamed climate change and reduced sea ice, despite the fact that walrus haulouts have happened at Ryrkapiy long before any significant reduction in sea ice. After all, the name of the Russian town where the events took place means ‘Place of the Walrus’ in Chukchi for a reason.
Whatever the case, climate blogger Paul Homewood thinks the film crew itself may have contributed to the tragedy by being far too close, flying drones over the colony and thus scaring the walruses to death:
Last week, the new Netflix series, Our Planet, was launched with great fanfare. Narrated by David Attenborough, however, one segment made headlines around the world, showcasing hundreds of walruses falling off a 260ft cliff to a slow, agonising death in heartbreaking scenes.
Narrating the disturbing scene in the second episode, Attenborough began:
“They do so out of desperation not choice.
“Their natural home is out on the sea ice, but the ice has retreated away to the north and this is the closest place to their feeding grounds.
“Every square inch is occupied, climbing over the tightly packed bodies is the only way across the crowd – those beneath can get crushed to death.
“In a desperate bid to avoid the crush they try to head towards the cliffs.
“But walruses’ eyesight out of the water is poor, but they can sense the others down below, as they get hungry they need to return to the sea.
“In their desperation to do so, hundreds fall from heights they should never have scaled.”
But the story quickly began to unravel.
Zoologist, Dr Susan Crockford, suspected that the event was actually a well publicised incident in October 2017, at Ryrkaypiy in NE Russia, when a group of polar bears drove several hundred walruses over the cliffs to their deaths, before feasting on the corpses.
Then a couple of days later, Andrew Montford was able to positively identify Ryrkaypiy as the location in the Our Planet film. The Netflix producers denied seeing any polar bears, but this does not alter the fact that many bears were in the area at that time.
There is however another rather more sinister possible explanation for the stampede. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS):
Walruses often flee haulouts en masse in response to the sight, sound, and especially odours from humans and machines.
So it is perfectly possible that it was the filmmakers themselves who caused the stampede up the cliffs.
Indeed, as this aerial shot showed, there must have been some sort of helicopter or drone flying immediately above the walrus, which seems to me to be an utterly irresponsible thing to do.